Donald Trump tried to avert his impeachment with a rambling six-page letter that portrayed a constitutionally defined and dictated process of accountability as “a coup.” It did not work.
The House on Wednesday rejected Trump’s absurd defense, and the majority made him the third president in American history to be impeached. The House voted 230 to 197 on the article of impeachment charging Trump with abuse of power. On the second article, charging Trump with obstruction of Congress, the House voted 229 to 198.
Members of the Democratic majority in the House recognized that, as Representative Rashida Tlaib said, “doing nothing here is not an option. Looking away from these crimes against our country is not an option. This is about protecting the future of our nation and our democracy from corruption, abuse of power, criminal coverups, and bribery.”
It was not a close call. Indeed, as Michigan Representative Justin Amash, the independent member who left the Republican Party because of his objections to Trump’s abuses, has reminded us,
President Trump’s conduct—using the office of the presidency to seek the aid of a foreign power for personal and political gain—more precisely reflects the type of conduct the Framers of the Constitution sought to remedy through impeachment than that of any president impeached prior.
The vote to impeach was the right response not just to the charges against Trump but also to the letter the president addressed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday, in which he alleged that
By proceeding with your invalid impeachment, you are violating your oaths of office, you are breaking your allegiance to the Constitution, and you are declaring open war on American Democracy. You dare to invoke the Founding Fathers in pursuit of this election-nullification scheme—yet your spiteful actions display unfettered contempt for America’s founding and your egregious conduct threatens to destroy that which our Founders pledged their very lives to build.
No serious observer would suggest that the 45th president of the United States has familiarized himself with the Constitution, or that he understands the basic premises of constitutional governance. But even by the low standards that are applied to Donald Trump, his letter advanced an exceptionally dishonest assertion: that the application of the impeachment power represents an assault on democracy.
It does the opposite. It preserves democracy, by assuring that a president cannot become what the founders feared: an “elected despot,” or “a king for four years.” If Congress cannot impeach a president who is abusing his position—especially if the abuse is designed to advance his reelection prospects—then the system of checks and balances is rendered meaningless. And the Constitution becomes a hollow promise, as opposed to the essential underpinning for the rule of law.
“You view democracy as your enemy,” Trump wrote to Pelosi. At the same time, he claimed that her “chosen candidate lost the election in 2016, in an Electoral College landslide [306-227], and you and your party have never recovered from this defeat.”
In Trump’s addled brain, these two statements can go together. But, of course, they are in conflict. During Wednesday’s long debate on the articles of impeachment, Republicans such as Ohio’s Bill Johnson complained that the Democrats were “disenfranchising 63 million voters” who backed Trump in 2016.
What Trump and his allies did not mention was the fact that while 62,984,828 voters did back Trump, 73,684,448 voters refused to support the Republican nominee in 2016—and 65,853,514 of them backed his Democratic rival.
The democratic will of the American people, as expressed by the electorate, favored Hillary Clinton over Trump by 2.9 million votes. It is true that Trump prevailed in the Electoral College, but it is also true that the Electoral College is an antidemocratic institution that thwarts the will of people.
Ultimately, this is about more than the debate over how best to count the votes cast in 2016—or the absurdity of Trump’s positioning of himself as a defender of democracy. This is about the integrity of American elections in the past, and in the future. If a president cannot be impeached for abusing his position in order to enhance his prospects for reelection, then the promise of democracy—which requires a guarantee of fair and honest elections—is dramatically threatened.
Representative Jamie Raskin, the Maryland Democrat who taught constitutional law before his election to the House, summed up the challenge in his remarks on Wednesday. “American elections belong to the American people, not the American president and not foreign powers. No president may cheat the people by working with foreign governments to steal from us a free and fair election,” explained the House Judiciary Committee member. “And no president who attempts it may cover up that cheating by systematically obstructing Congress in our work.”
It was Raskin, not Donald Trump, who spoke the truth about democracy this week.
If we the people lose the certainty of free and fair elections to presidential corruption and foreign manipulation, then we lose our democracy itself—the most precious inheritance we have received from prior generations that pledged their sacred honor and gave everything that they had to defend it. The struggle for democracy is the meaning of America. That is why we remain the last best hope of a world ravaged by authoritarianism, violence and corruption. We must act now to protect our elections and safeguard constitutional democracy for the enormous and unprecedented challenges that still lie ahead of us.